In Bill’s struggle with depression, he looks for help outside of the Twelve Steps. What he finds in psychotherapy and his relationship with Father Ed Dowling will change his perspective on the Steps.

After returning from a three month tour of the States, during which he and Lois visited most existing AA groups, Bill collapses into depression and remains depressed for two years. He suffers from such episodes until 1953. Bill’s depression is troubling to many AA’s, some of whom accuse Bill of not working the program. Bill himself also wonders if he hasn’t failed to practice the Steps. According to the official AA biography of Bill:

Bill believed that his depressions were perpetuated by his own failure to work the AA steps…”I used to be rather guilt ridden about this…I blamed myself for inability to practice the program in certain areas of my life.”

Pass It On

And Bill may have good reason to believe that his Stepwork is deficient.

According to Tom P., when he was working with Bill on the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill was frequently overwhelmed by the guild and remorse he felt as a consequence of his infidelities and the turmoil his affairs were causing within the fellowship…According to Tom, trying to write about the need for alcoholics to practice “rigorous honesty”…left Bill felling terribly fraudulent. The result was those days…when he was so despondent he literally could not pick his head up from his desk.

Bill W.
Francis Hartigan

Bill may see his depression as a result of his failure to work the Twelve Steps, but he does not turn to Stepwork to get him back on his feet. This may be due in part to the influence of Father Ed Dowling.

Bill meets Dowling when the man comes knocking at his door in 1940. At the time Bill is down and out, but still four years from serious depression. Dowling announces that he has sought Bill out to discuss the similarities between the Exercises of St. Ignatius and the Twelve Steps. During their conversation, Bill confesses his personal struggles. Dowling, author of the article, “How to Enjoy Being Miserable,” gives Bill a new perspective on depression.

Father Ed quoted to him, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst.”
When Bill asked whether there was ever to be any satisfaction, the older man snapped back, “Never. Never any.” Bill was to be a person who would keep on reaching. In his reaching he would find God goals, hidden in his own heart.

The Soul of Sponsorship
by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.

Accepting this view means that Bill can understand his growing despondency not as a result of his failure to apply spiritual principles, but a sign of his spiritual depth and giftedness. According to Dowling, God has blessed Bill with an ambition and a desperation that cause his suffering, but will also lead Bill to great things. The solution for Bill, then, is not to search deeper for moral lapses and confess them, but to press on and accept the suffering as an inevitable fact. Bill does exactly that for four years until his depression becomes intolerable and he seeks help in psychotherapy.

In 1943, Bill enters therapy with Henry Tiebout, who specialized in the treatment of alcoholics and introduced Marty M. to AA. Tiebout’s diagnosis of Bill was that:

both in his active alcoholism and his current sobriety he had been trying to live out the infantilely grandiose demands of “His Majesty the Baby.”

by Ernest Kurtz

This statment reflects Tiebout’s view of alcoholics in general. The next year, Bill switches therapists, and begins seeing Frances Weeks, a Jungian. Week’s opinion of Bill is that his position in AA is causing him to neglect his personal needs. Says Bill in a letter to a friend regarding this insight:

Highly satisfactory to live one’s life for others, it cannot be anything but disastrous to live one’s life for others as those others think it should be lived…The extent to which the AA movement and the individual in it determine my choices is really astonishing. Things which are primary to me (even for the good of AA) are unfulfilled…So we have the person of Mr. Anonymous in conflict with Bill Wilson.

The Soul of Sponsorship
by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.

Bill continues treatment with Weeks until at least 1949.

Bill’s experience in psychotherapy has an impact on his understanding of recovery and Stepwork. In two letters written in 1956, Bill suggests a means for the application of psychotherapy to AA principles.

It may be that someday we shall devise some common denominator of psychiatry…which neurotics could use on each other. The idea would be to extend the moral inventory of AA to a deeper level, making it an inventory of psychic damages…I suppose someday a Neurotics Anonymous will be formed and will actually do all this.

In the second letter Bill suggests:

an inventory of psychic damages, actual episodes: inferiority, shame, guilt, anger and relive (them) in our minds to reduce them.

both letters from
The Soul of Sponsorship
by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.

The end result of Bill’s relationship with Father Ed Dowling and psychoanalytic treatment is that Bill moves away from a Religious Conversion View of recovery and adopts a Psychological View of recovery instead. Bill’s Psychological View will greatly influence his thinking as he writes Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and so it will also affect the future practice of the Twelve Steps.

23 Comments so far
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I find it more comforting and obtainable, sobriety, based on a Psychological View rather than a Religious Conversion View. I am glad I found these sites, my first sponsor did a lot of damage because she was not knowledgable about anything other than the big book, to be honest, and I found sobriety very unobtainable with her. I have a new sponsor now who is very open minded.

Comment by Missy C

Psychological and religious conversion views needn’t be either/or. My sobriety and my life is always in God’s hands. The 12×12 helps me connect the dots, understand the relationship between one’s misdirected emotions and another’s reactions. My life has not devolved into contemplating my navel.

Comment by Dave S.

Very thought provoking. Must say from my own experience I always felt like I was missing something in the 12 steps. I checked into treatment 18 years without a drink for compulsive infidelity issues. The first thing they did was go after cause and condition stuff. The truama and core beliefs that developed into the impaired coping mechanisms of drugs, alcohol and sex to numb myself. In my experience this provided a fuller picture and a greater level of freedom from the “what happened”. It required me to go deeper into the “what happened”, face it, and in many cases working towards forgiveness where freedom eventually came from resulting in a true God connection.

Comment by Chip I.

Are we looking for sobriety or sanity? If one is looking for sobriety “just don’t drink, go to meetings and read the 12&12, thats what I did for 14yrs and then tried to commit sucide. I was lead through the steps in the BB and saw that my “depression” was due to my sex conduct. Its been 10yrs from crippling depression. I am on board with Tom P.

Comment by bill m

I see it’s been a few years since anyone made a comment here. Christians don’t all follow or read their book. We go as deep as we can and as fast as we can. Chuck C. said you can’t see till you can see and you can’t hear till you can hear, and it doesn’t matter who’s doing the talking. God is in charge. Without God i’m a can not, without me God is a will not. When these line up the job get’s done.

Comment by Steve Austin

I believe ego is the maniac we are talking about here and the 12 steps done out of the big book honestly and thoroughly are ,in my opinion an ego deflator.Hense, all problems solved.

Comment by Joseph poti

The last two comments are spot on in my opinion. A A Has tried everything but all comes back to deflation, Mike C. Gibson Idaho

Comment by Mike Caldwell

AA is a corner stone of recovery alcoholic crippling’s, for some the BB and honestly working the program is enough to locate a sense of God and trust but to think it fits all is short sided based on each human being’s nature based out of trauma, abuse and just plain awful experiences that alcohol was expected to erase. I use AA for alcoholic recovery and other means for the other issues I carry in life. It is a personal matter for each person. I notice Fear when you bring this up with the BB thumpers that howl “don’t bring the Phycology Today crap into this room”, I think it brings up hidden demons” Love and acceptance…..

Comment by Patrick

the way i see it, the bb delves into “psychology today crap” in at least two instances: 1. on page xxx of the fourth edition, states “… there is the manic-depressive type, who is, perhaps the least understood by his friends and about whom a whole chapter could be written”; and in how it works, it states, “there are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders but they have the capacity to be honest.” i think aa’s approach – or lack of approach toward those struggling with mental illness to be antiquated, from the dark ages … and as it says, “a whole chapter could be written” … and i think it’s time that one is introduced …

Comment by Deb Saine

… oops: there are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.” d’oh!

Comment by Deb Saine

Could not agree more. ❤

Comment by Nick charles

Whenever one is struggling with a persistent problem, whether one of choices or imposed without one’s will, it is very helpful to remember that “God IS”. Beliefs do not affect His existence, His Power, or His Love. Letting go of resistance to Him is the means of accessing His Grace. Psychology, however well intentioned or thought out, is a comparatively crude attempt to mimic God. It CAN help, but surrendering our (puny) will, truly and completely, to the Source is much more effective. Hence the Example of the Cross. GIVE it to Him, then LISTEN to Him, and FOLLOW His guidance – in TOTAL trust. His Solutions may differ from ours, and His timing may appear inconvenient, but His way is always for the best.

Comment by David Aceves

I for one suffer from clinical major depression, a bipolar disorder. I’ve been sober and in recovery for many years. There are some of us who are recovering alcoholics and who also have psychiatric illnesses.

We must keep in mind that few recovering alcoholics and addicts in these groups are mental health and treatment professionals. Almost all are certainly well-meaning. Many don’t fully understand the difference between the usual depressions and anxieties most recovering folks go through in early sobriety and psychiatric illnesses–nor should they be expected to. These are understandable misconceptions, but can lead to poor advice even from some of the “old-timers”.

It is clear that no one should play the role of doctor but a licensed physician or psychiatrist. Sponsors and other well-meaning Twelfth Steppers should not give medical advice. Those of you who seek sponsors in 12 Step groups must weigh carefully the potential sponsor’s attitude and understanding concerning medications and psychiatric illnesses. We can not expect them to fully understand, but an attitude of acceptance toward the the nature of a dual disorder in our recovery is key. Experience has shown us that honesty is the basis for successful sponsorships.

On page 133 of the Big Book of A.A. it says in part:

“Now about health: A body badly burned by alcohol does not often recover overnight nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling. We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative. We, who have recovered from serious drinking, are miracles of mental health. But we have seen remarkable transformations in our bodies. Hardly one of our crowd now shows any dissipation.

But this does not mean that we disregard human health measures. God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitated to take your health problems to such persons. Most of them give freely of themselves, that their fellows may enjoy sound minds and bodies. Try to remember that though God has wrought miracles among us, we should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist. Their services are often indispensable in treating a newcomer and in following his case afterward.”

Some have been told in AA by well meaningful and good intention people that they do not have an emotional or psychiatric illness, and that they are experiencing merely self-pity or some other character defect “You don’t need those pills; they’ll cause you more problems” and “If you’re taking pills, then you’re in relapse and not really sober”. Individuals who have followed such advice have experienced relapse: some have been hospitalized; some have returned to alcohol or drug use; some have attempted or even completed suicide. To say the least, it can be very confusing. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous makes clear that these types of statements are not the official position of A.A., N.A., or in fact any other Twelve Step recovery groups.

There is also an important piece of A.A. conference approved literature called “The A.A. Member – Medications & Other Drugs” Here are a few excerpts:

“…A.A. members and many of their physicians have described situations in which depressed patients have been told by A.A.s to throw away the pills, only to have depression return with all its difficulties, sometimes resulting in suicide. We have heard, too, from schizophrenics, manic depressives, epileptics, and others requiring medication that well-meaning A.A. friends often discourage them from taking prescribed medication, Unfortunately, by following a layman’s advice, the sufferers find that their conditions can return with all their previous intensity…”

“It becomes clear that just as it is wrong to enable or support any alcoholic to become re-addicted to any drug, it’s equally wrong to deprive any alcoholic of medication which can alleviate or control other disabling physical and/or emotional problems.”

Comment by John Wease

I was on antidepressants when i came into aa. I was very wary of side effects of all drugs (prescription and illegal) as i’d had several funny turns (i believe from mixing lsd, librium, atevan, sleeping tablets (plus alcohol) over a period of a year. When i was prescribed largactyl by a pyschiatrist i was very wary and was too neurotic to take them. I had seen several psychiatrists and had been surprised that any of them had diagnosed /prescribed for me as they had spent a cursory amount of time speaking to me. Then i had a nice doctor i trusted so took the antidepressants, around the time i came to aa (I was very wary that alcohol plus antidepressants would kill me). After a few months active in AA i could see that my life and thinking was surprisingly and radically better. I conferred with my doctor and against her advice came off the antidepressants (cutting down). I remained immersed in AA and continued to grow and enjoy life more than ever before – this has continued for 20 years of sobriety now. That’s just what happened to me. I would never tell anyone else to stop taking antidepressants or not to start taking them and don’t offer opinions on depresssion. Its not my business. I do know a few people who died from drink who i know had been on long term medication and kept relapsing and wonder ‘did the medications help them or hinder’ but i don’t think that there is an answer in the great scheme of things. I don’t care if people take meds if it helps them live a happier life.

Comment by Stuart

As i read this enlightening history of the on going blessing of the “sobriety movements” I realize more and more what Bill W suffered from, comes in many faces.

As for me, the messages are true:

How much i need the grace and guidance of God and his helpers each and every day…

And like Bill W and so many others, sobriety is essential through this on going painful process of getting right with God and my fellows, day by day – day by day.

With gratitude, and thanks, that a seat was available for me in AA
on my first day of sobriety May 4,1971 John T.

Comment by john tucker

Thank you john tucker, september 8, 2017. Some times as I sit at table with my home group, listening to these people I love and trust share, I want to crawl under the table because I’m being eaten alive inside knowing how worthless my love really is, I remember that 10 years ago, sober for 6 at that time, in tears and in prayer I asked the holy spirit to either kill me or teach me something . Now, as today october 4, 2017 comes to a smooth and sleepy end, I still cry, still pray, even laugh a little, play a little guitar, spend time in the woods and stay very grateful to god for grace, and more important, mercy that there is still a seat for in AA

Comment by Russ Losey

Thank you for this insightful article. I, like Bill W. have had to distinguish between where my addiction leaves off and my ‘neurosis’ begins, and the latter is the predecessor. I just wanted support from history as to what the alcohoic and addict in many cases, is really having to get sober and clean over. Many pass judgement on those who are like the very one who helped save their lives. This reading gives proof positive that a deeper level of knowledge and compassion needs to be poured out, straight with no ignorant or prejudice chaser. Thank you so much!

Comment by Siobhan Roberson

Bill and medical people didn’t know about genetics and environment. Today addictions are not looked at as character defects most addictions have been born chemical imbalance and Jones to medicate.

Comment by Michael Audley

Seems to me some are trying to fix a spiritual problem with a human solution. AA describes God’s solution not man’s.. Bill as were many other unsavoury characters in The Bible used by God. No one has any right to an opinion on the truth.

Comment by joe poti

That’s just one person’s experience. I’d be depressed if I cheated on my spouse numerous times. I haven’t decided I’d she’s a Saint or a martyr.
Bottom line- we’re human. But we don’t drink when we screw up.

Comment by LESLIE F

I had to get the message that I placed myself in a situation beyond human aid from my head to my heart.And there’s only one that I know of that can perform that task.HE is the solution.

Comment by Joseph poti

I have struggled, as Bill did, I believe, with the need to pursue my brain’s need for dopamine, which alcohol and drugs provided, so I switched to sex with others and then through masturbation.
This eventually led me to a dead end in my recovery. I am currently practicing complete celibacy and it is a painful process tha has produced much anxiety and despair. I have had to take and antidepressant to get me through
through this. (I am also a Vietnam Veteran who
suffer a skull fracture early in life). Reaching the goal of the spirit world is daunting to say the least…..,,,,Peter B

Comment by Edward P Boice

Bill only moved away from religious conversion for a while and in fact did not experience an end to his depresiion until he learned to apply the steps in a deeper way, following Dr. Bob’s rejection of psychological principles. This deeper spiritual surrender is outlined in Emotional Sobriety (see the article of the same title).
I am a professional addiction and mental health counsellor. I don’t discount the power of psychology for most people, except those like Bill, of whom I am one. Of course I wish that the program was psychological in nature. It certainly would be more accessible, especially with my training. It wouldn’t have taken me 14 yrs of depression in the program if psychological applications could work. I don’t begrudge those in the program who found benefit from seeing it as a psychological program. But by definition, on p. 19, they would be problem drinkers not people like Bill and Dr. Bob. My depression ended when I realized that my life depended on conforming to our literature, not because alcohol was going to kill me. Depression was going to kill me. I haven’t had a depressive episode in 15 yrs now.
Once i learned the literature based program like my life depended on it, I realized how many people had only given it a cursory look over, like I had those first years. I went to many Big Book studies but didn’t read them to save my life. Depression was the motivation I needed to surrender at the level necessary to change my entire self.

Comment by Steve M.

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